Capital AudioFest 2011

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John Atkinson  |  Jul 10, 2011  |  0 comments
The larger of the two JS Audio rooms featured Wilson Sasha W/P speakers driven by Dan D'Agostino's new Momentum monoblock amplifiers. Source was either a Sooloos system or the Sound Devices digital recorder belonging to Wilson's Peter McGrath (pictured standing on that hotel carpet), both feeding data to Meridian's 808 Mk.3 CD player/digital processor, which also controlled playback volume. My hurriedly scrawled notes say that the Sooloos feed was via Ethernet, but don't hold me to that; the Sound Devices was definitely S/PDIF. The cabling was all Nordost Odin, which may well have cost more than everything else in the system, and the source components sat on a Harmonic Recovery Systems rack, which all involved said was a major contributor to the quality of the sound in this room.

And OMG, the sound! Whether it was Peter McGrath's hi-rez recordings or commercial material like Yello's "Stay," you were mainlining the music. Peter asked if he could play some of my hi-rez recordings, and played first the Cantus performance of Eric Whitacre's Lux Aurumque in 24/88.2k fidelity. I was transported to the Sauder Auditorium at Goshen College in Indiana, with the acoustic wrapped around me. The system did subtlety. Peter then played the 24/88.2k master of Attention Screen's "Blizzard Limbs," from Live at Merkin Hall. Again, the acoustic wrapped round me but the drum transients were more startling than I have ever heard before. And I mastered the recording!

I have heard Wilson Sashas in a number of systems, and yes, they are "fast," in that the bass doesn't boom or blur. Yes, the Nordost Odin is extraordinarily transparent cable (at a price) and that Meridian player's D/A is top-rank. And that HRS rack is a black hole for vibrations. But driven by the Dan D'Agostino amps—wow, did the Sashas kick some awesome booty! Without ever sounding crass or lacking in subtlety.

John Atkinson  |  Jul 10, 2011  |  1 comments
"Concrete is toxic to the sound of speakers!" explained Mapleshade's Pierre Sprey, when I asked about the maple platforms and brass footers on which everything was standing in his room at Capital AudioFest. Pierre makes superbly natural-sounding recordings, but also lives in a world where everything matters when it comes to optimizing sound quality. The system comprised Sonist Concerto 4 speakers ($5895/pair), these a 97dB-sensitive design with a solid poplar front baffle, driven by a heavily modified vintage tubed Scott integrated amplifier. (Pierre has been buying up used examples of this amp since 1989 and offers the modded amps for sale—see his website.) Source was a modded Cyrus CD-8SE CD player (the bottom panel was now maple) and preamp was a Kora Triode.

Whether it was Pierre's fanatic attention to detail that no-one else considers important, or maybe he is just an expert at setting up systems. But the Sonist speakers sounded very much better than the Concerto 4s and smaller versions that I heard at the Atlanta and Jacksonville Axpona Shows: clean, transparent, and uncolored.

John Atkinson  |  Jul 10, 2011  |  2 comments
. . .has to be zero, to judge by how Pierre Sprey dresses his speaker wires!
John Atkinson  |  Jul 09, 2011  |  1 comments
It was déjà vu all over again all over again (and again).Capital AudioFest was the fourth Show I have attended this season, only to encounter MBL North America's Jeremy Bryan demming the same system he had at SSI in Montreal, at Axpona in Atlanta, and at Axpona in New York: 101E Mk.2 speakers driven by 9011 monoblock amplifiers, a 6010D preamp, a 1621A CD transport, and a 1611F D/A converter. But this time, not only was the hotel carpet different (and uglier), the room was large enough to allow the omnidirectional speakers to sing as they should. Again I listened to "The Boy in the Bubble" from Peter Gabriel's Scratch My Back CD, and the hi-rez solo piano recording made by MBL's Jürgen Reis, "Walchensee, Mondnacht," performed by Martin Vatter, from the album Klangbilder, played back from a server, and the highs were smooth and mellow without being rolled-off, just as they should be and are in real life, the imaging stable and accurately defined.
John Atkinson  |  Jul 09, 2011  |  1 comments
That's the title of the book Ken Kessler wrote about the iconic American high-end audio company, and which was reviewed in the May 2007 issue of Stereophile. Shown here in the second room hosted by retailer JS Audio, next to the McIntosh turntable, which I believe is the only product not made in the company's Binghamton, the book reinforces the idea that despite changing owners several times over the decades. McIntosh has not lost its institutional memory.
John Atkinson  |  Jul 09, 2011  |  0 comments
Although I had seen the 4-way, floorstanding Polk LSiM 707 ($4000/pair) at the Montreal Show in April, they weren't being demmed in an optimal room. But driven at Capital AudioFest by an Audio Research stack—CD8 CD player, Ref3 preamplifier, and VS110 power amplifier—and hooked up with MIT cable, they gave great sound on Keb Mo's version of "It Hurts Me Too" from his The Door CD, with extended low frequencies and impressive dynamics.
John Atkinson  |  Jul 10, 2011  |  4 comments
"Where's the tweeter?" I asked after a listen to the 97dB-sensitive Soundfield speakers, shown at Capital AudioFest in prototype form. It turned out the top drive-unit is a 12" coaxial unit, with the HF unit mounted where the dust-cap would be. "So the big-ass 18" dipole unit is the subwoofer?" No, it was explained, the18" unit in the speaker's center, behind the grille, is the woofer, covering the range from 50–200Hz. The bottom 12" unit, mounted in a sealed enclosure is the subwoofer, handling frequencies below 50Hz. With the coaxial and 18" drivers operating as dipoles and the bottom12" unit omnidirectional, by varying the crossover between the low-frequency drivers, the speaker's radiation pattern can be made cardioid in the region where room acoustics might benefit. I had seen a cardioid subwoofer designed by Ken Kantor many years ago at a CES, and had wondered why no-one else had experimented along these lines.
John Atkinson  |  Jul 10, 2011  |  1 comments
The Surreal Sound Speaker ($10,000/pair) is the small, three-way floorstander finished in cherry, not the massive bass bin behind it, which belongs to the GOTO Horns speaker (see next story). Surreal Sound's Ralph Helmer is passionate about midrange, feeling it is in the midrange where the music truly lives. To that end, his speaker features a beryllium-disc midrange unit, mounted in an open baffle. A Heil Air Motion Transfomer supertweeter and three spider-less, aluminum-alloy, 10" cone drivers for the bass, all also mounted in open baffles, complete the drive-unit line-up. Mr; Helmer believes that one of the advantages of his dipole speakers is their high Wife-Acceptance Favor, in that they are smaller than expected for same amount of bass.
John Atkinson  |  Jul 09, 2011  |  0 comments
There was no information available on this cute tube integrated from Italy, the Synthesis Flame, except that it has remote control and costs between $1500 and $3000. But it sure is pretty! Check out
John Atkinson  |  Jul 09, 2011  |  0 comments
Ken Swauger runs a Baltimore-based company called TapePath ( that specializes in restoring classic open-reel tape recorders, especially ReVox A77s. Ken is shown here in the vestibule to the Polk room, holding a baggie with all the parts from an A77 that he replaces and upgrades. I still have an A77 in storage—perhaps I'll send it to Ken to have it brought back from the dead!
John Atkinson  |  Jul 09, 2011  |  0 comments
Listening to the Philharmonic speakers, I couldn't see a source. There was an AVA CD player but its display said "No Disc." There was a turntable but no LP playing. Then I saw an iPad in someone's hand. It was controlling Jim Salk's new StreamPlayer ($1295), the rightmost of the two small red-line-fronted boxes on top of the preamp in the photo. This is similar in concept to the Bryston BDP-1 we reviewed in June, in that it is a PC running Linux that is optimized for streaming audio from an external source, in this case Salk's own NAS drive (the left-most box), connected by Ethernet cable. Whereas the Bryston offers control buttons and a display, the Salk is controlled by a remote client running on an iPad, iPod Touch, Android phone, etc. The Salk StreamPlayer, which was sending audio data via USB to a Wavelength Cosecant DAC, will be available in October.
John Atkinson  |  Jul 10, 2011  |  0 comments
... may have been fairly small as these things go, with just 28 exhibitor rooms, which is way fewer than THE Show Newport Beach a month ago. However, that is still 6 more rooms than the Axpona NYC just two weeks ago, with about the same number of marquee brands, in a hotel with generally better-sounding rooms than New York's Affinia. Show organizer Gary Gill, shown here giving away the prizes at the first of the nightly raffles, took a big gamble moving last year's intimate show into a hotel venue, but it seemed to have worked: both exhibitors and attendees seemed very upbeat about the event. Attendance on Saturday evening was a hair short of 700, meaning that possibly 900 or even 1000 people had packed the rooms of the Rockville Crowne Plaza by the time the Show closed Sunday evening.

Are regional shows like Gary's the future of the audio market, as Classic Speakers' John Wolff believes, or will we return to the days when there were just one or at most two large shows each year? That is going to depend on the resources of audio manufacturers and retailers and their willingness to spend more time on the road. But the 2011 Capital AudioFest certainly proved that if you hold it, audiophiles will come.

John Atkinson  |  Jul 09, 2011  |  0 comments
One of the first rooms I went into was that featuring products from The Signal Collection, the distribution company run by the affable Chris Sommovigo (right). Also in the room was Todd Garfinkel of M•A Recordings (left), who was using Chris's system to play the masters of some of his excellent-sounding recordings. (I mentioned below that M•A had made a sampler CD to be given ever attendee.) The speaker featured in the photo is the M3 Mk3 ($6499/pair) from Swedish manufacturer Transmission Audio, a floorstanding sibling of the standmounted M1i Ribbon Mini I had auditioned at the Atlanta Axpona last April. The M3 used two of the metal-cne woofers developed by Bo Bengtsson and Ted Jordan. Each woofer is loaded differently to give a two-a-half-way design. The crossover to the ribbon tweeter is set at 3kHz.

With the speakers driven by Klimo Tine class-A tube monoblocks ($8999/pair), a Klimo Merlino preamp ($6699), hooked up with Stereolab interconnects and speakers cables, I listened to some of Todd's DSD masters played back on his Korg MR2000 recorder, as well as a Red Book WAV file of a track from M•A's well-regarded Calamus: The Splendor of Al Andalus. Despite competing noise from a live band playing in an adjacent ballroom, the sound was open, and clear., with a wide soundstage.

John Atkinson  |  Jul 10, 2011  |  0 comments
"The Voice That Is" is the name of a Newtown Square, PA, retailer and when I walked into their room, I had no idea what equipment I was listening to, as it was—again—totally dark! (I had to set my camera's "film speed" to a noisy 1600 to get a photo at all.) But the music playing, Stevie Ray Vaughan's "Tin Pan Alley" took me back a quarter century, when all you heard at audio shows was this cut. But it never sounded this good back then!

As my eyes accommodated to the darkness, I could make two pairs of Tidal speakers, the floorstanding Piano Diaceras ($37,690/pair) behind stand-mounted Ameas ($18.990/pair). Both feature ceramic-cone woofers and a diamond-dome tweeter but it was the Diaceras that were playing, connected with Argento cable to a Tidal Impact 140Wpc stereo amplifier ($35,990) and a Tidal Preas preamp ($27,990). Source was a MacBook Pro feeding USB data to a dCS Debussy D/A (my current reference, it shall be said, though in May I loaned it to Erick Lichte, who doesn't appear to want to send it back any time soon).

As if to confirm that it was 1987, the next track played was "Le temps passé" from the Michel Jonasz CD L'Histoire de Monsieur Swing. This is what I am talking about—a huge, stable soundstage, extending way beyond the speaker positions; smooth, grain-free highs, tight, tuneful, deep lows, and a pure, coloration-free midrange—and all of this in service of the music, adding to the experience instead of substituting for it. It doesn't get much better than this!

John Atkinson  |  Jul 09, 2011  |  4 comments
As well as listening to hi-rez digital files on the MBL system, I auditioned 15ips open-reel tapes from the Tape Project on a much modified Tascam recorder from United Home Audio. UHA's Greg Beron (that's Greg's hand in the photo) replaces the heads with low-impedance ones sourced from the company that supplies Abbey Road Studios in London, wired with single-crystal cable and silk-dielectric caps. A UHA machine costs $8000–$17,000 depending on the level of work the customer needs, and the machine is lined-up to be compatible with Tape Project tapes. Listening to a Decca orchestral recording of Suite Espanole, I was reminded how good analog tape playback could be. Even a mono Thelonious Monk cut from 50 years ago sounded fresh.